Meet Me in the Middle: Venus’ Career Crossroads

Venus Williams has a lot of experience dealing with little sisters.

Prior to first ball at Roland Garros, she had lost just four matches in her career to notable ‘little sisters.’ Magdalena Maleeva scored three wins against Venus in her career, while Kateryna Bondarenko also notched a victory during the Ukrainian’s career-best season in 2009.

The elephant in the room? Well, let’s just say Venus has had the most on-court success against the little sisters that didn’t grow up in her household.

When the draw was released for this year’s tournament, she found herself pitted up against another little sister in Urszula Radwanska. Like her elder sister Agnieszka, the Pole found great success on the junior circuit; however, she has struggled much more with translating this success to the WTA level, due to both a variety of injuries and a volatile on-court personality. In a match full of drama and plot twists, the two sisters battled it out for over three hours on Court Suzanne Lenglen. Each time Radwanska took a lead, Williams hit back; Radwanska’s level stayed much more even over the three hour, 19-minute contest and in the fading light of the Parisian evening, she finally pulled off the 7-6(5), 6-7(4), 6-4 victory.

Give credit where it’s due; it was finally Urszula’s time to shine on a big stage. While it seems unlikely that she will match or eclipse her elder sister’s accomplishments, as Serena did to Venus, she did show one thing that Agnieszka has become famous for: mental toughness. The younger Radwanska, who has capitulated in matches of note numerous times in her young career, could’ve easily snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Despite nearing tears in parts, she held firm; when all the stars align for an upset, the underdog still has to see it through. Nonetheless, much of the narrative that followed was largely focused on Williams, while the victor was barely an afterthought.

Struggling with a back injury since April and having played just one match on red clay prior to Roland Garros, Venus’ preparation was less than ideal. The murmurs and the whispers of the ‘r-word’, both of which have followed the elder Williams sister since her return to the game after a Sjogren’s syndrome diagnosis in 2011, returned just a bit louder. While Venus’ mind is willing, her body says differently. She looked exhausted after every long rally, but still fought on for three hours. She clearly loves the game, but to say she’s still out there for ‘fun’ is misguided at best. She’s a competitor, a champion; she steps on the court believing she can win and still has a deep desire to do so. It’s highly unlikely that she enjoys the physically exhausting, mentally draining struggle that professional tennis often is, especially when coming out on the losing end.

On the other side of the coin, her achievements speak for themselves. She’s a seven-time grand slam champion and has every right to decide for herself when to hang up her rackets, whether just in singles or entirely. Venus Williams doesn’t have anything to prove anymore. Long considered a role model of grace and class for young players, fighting spirit and professionalism has always categorized her career; this has particularly shown through over the past 18 months. If anything, this match was the perfect storm of Venus’ frustrations with poor form, as well as the stubbornness and persistence that has made her a champion.

“My strategy was more or less to put the ball in, and that’s very difficult for me, too, because that’s not who I am,” she said, following the match. “But that’s all I had.”

If there’s anything to take away from the twilight of Venus Williams’ career, it’s the need for a middle ground. Those calling for her to retire need to gain some perspective, but so do those who believe she can still contend for the biggest titles in singles. Her A-game and Z-game have always been separated by inches. No matter how great she is, the one opponent she’ll never beat is Father Time. As we all know, however, the Williams sisters have made a career of overcoming adversity by making adjustments. Tell them they can’t, and they will find a way. It’s foolish to expect Venus to be the player she once was, but it is perhaps even more so to expect her to fall down, and stay down, after another bump in the road.

Serena Williams: Nothing Left To Prove

As I watched Serena Williams take on Johanna Larsson during last weekend’s USA/Sweden Fed Cup tie, I will admit I was surprised by the level of her intensity. Given where she was, playing a relegation rubber in front of a rain-affected crowd,  it seemed – how does one put this? – out of character.

Surely, I jest. Anyone who has watched even a smattering of tennis in the last decade can attest to the intensity this living legend possesses. Such intensity almost single-handedly took her to the pinnacle of the sport and helped her through the darker days, both on and off the court. It never mattered her shape, scoreline, or  state of mind. It mattered even less who was across the net, be she rival or sister, Venus. In a game where many have been lambasted for their lack of mental toughness,  Serena was the WTA’s rock, who relied on her relentless intensity and competitive fire to finish off many a tough match.

How has she been able to do these incredible things for so long? It could be said that what has kept her at the top of the sport for nearly 15 years has been what could be deemed an “economy of intensity.” Williams has made a career out of bringing her best when it matters the most. Arguably our sport’s biggest star (at least in North America), she shapes her seasons around the Slams, peaking at the right time during those all-important two week stretches.

This extreme prioritizing has all but cemented her place in history, but often created a few problems for her in the present. Those who tuned in solely during the Grand Slams (or even those with a more comprehensive view of the sport) would see the most dominant player in the game ranked outside the top 3 and wonder “why?” A cursory glance at her results outside of the Slams would reveal a fair share of no-shows (she essentially took herself out of the race for year-end No. 1 when she withdrew from the Fall Asian swing) and shocking losses (Austrian journeywoman Sybille Bammer retired in 2011 undefeated against her).

A desire to explain this vast incongruity shifted the blame from her comparative lack of focus on a smaller stage to a lack of commitment to be a full-time tennis player. This truism dates back to 2006, when Chris Evert took to Tennis Magazine to write an open letter to Williams questioning her desire. At that point, she had won seven major singles titles, yet at the time, the tennis world felt gypped, and that Serena still had something to prove.

For all she has accomplished since then, it has been difficult for Serena to shake that stick.

Yet, for any of us to fall back on this notion is to ignore this latest incarnation of Serena Williams. The veteran of 30 who fought off a toe injury that led to a pulmonary embolism only to find herself back at No. 1 two years later. The woman who shed tears after her first Wimbledon match after that lay-off, and again when she was told of her return to the top of the rankings in Doha.

What more does she need to do to prove how much she wants to be here?

Against Larsson, she celebrated her good play, admonished herself for her errors, and was jubilant in a victory that tied the US with Sweden at one match apiece. We have been so conditioned to expect a flat, even blasé Serena show up on a smaller stage that this “new” Serena continues to shock us. But should we really be so surprised? When we remember who she is, what she’s been through, her love for the game is suddenly apparent. And after 15 years, the sport should be grateful that that love is stronger than ever.

Sister, Sister: I Do My Own Style in My Own Time

The tennis world has long been familiar with sibling acts in the both the ATP and WTA. First it was the McEnroe brothers, followed by the (three) Maleeva sisters. Next came the Williams sisters and Bryan twins, followed the the Bondarenkos and the Radwanskas. Often times, one sibling sees considerably more success than the other. John McEnroe is in the Hall of Fame, while Patrick only won one singles title in his career. Kim Clijsters’ sister, Elke, played less than two years of professional tennis before retiring due to persistent injuries. She peaked at No. 483. Agnieszka Radwanska has been a mainstay in the WTA top 10 for the past five years, but her sister Urszula couldn’t even break into the top 50 in the world until July of 2012.

In total, seven sets of sisters have won titles together in professional tennis. The leaders, of course, are the Williams sisters, with 21 doubles titles and 13 grand slams. The Bondarenko sisters are a distant second, as they took home three titles; they join the Williams sisters as the only other major winners with a 2008 Australian Open title. Agnieszka and Urzsula Radwanska, Hao-Ching and Yung-Jan Chan, Katerina and Manuela Maleeva, Cammy and Cynthia MacGregor, Adriana and Antonella Serra Zanetti all own one doubles title together.

While there have been immense numbers of successful sisters (say that five times fast) on the WTA, there was never a set of twins. Until now.

Enter Karolina and Kristyna Pliskova. Each plays a similar game, centered around a huge serve and attacking tennis. Movement, to put it mildly, is neither one’s strength. Like the Bryans, you could once only tell them apart by their handedness. Both had tremendous junior careers, but struggled to translate that success onto the senior circuit. Karolina, the righty, was the 2010 Australian Open junior champion; Kristyna, the lefty, joined her sister in the junior slam champion club at Wimbledon in the same year. For a while, the identical twins seemed to be following identical career paths.

For the record, Karolina is now a brunette while Kristyna is a blonde.

Karolina Pliskova had already racked up four ITF singles titles by May of 2010, while Kristyna was still looking for her first. Then, the two faced off in the finals of a 50K ITF event in Kurume, Japan which Kristyna eventually won 5-7, 6-2, 6-0. Two years after her twin, Kristyna finally entered the senior winners’ circle. In fact, the two have already played seven times on the senior circuit in their young careers; Karolina holds a slim 4-3 advantage, with the most recent win, a 76(11) 76(6) triumph, coming in the finals of a 25K ITF event in Grenoble, France in January of 2012.

Despite having more overall success, Karolina ended 2012 ten spots behind her sister in the rankings; the end of Kristyna’s year was buoyed by a second round showing at the US Open. She qualified and defeated Julia Goerges in the second round for the Pliskova family’s best career win before losing to Mandy Minella. Karolina lost in the second round of qualifying in Flushing Meadows to Donna Vekic.

That’s all changed in 2013, as Karolina has begun to considerably outpace her twin; this run was highlighted by her first WTA title in Kuala Lumpur in March. The unseeded Pliskova defeated fifth-seeded Misaki Doi and fourth-seeded Ayumi Morita before defeating Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the final, a match in which she rallied from a 6-1 first set blowout. On the other side, Kristyna came into Kuala Lumpur as the eighth-seed, but crashed out to Kazakh qualifier Zarina Diyas in the first round. Krystina peaked at No. 86 in the rankings in January, but is now back outside the top 100. Karolina passed her sister’s career high last week, and currently sits at No. 81.

That gulf will no doubt widen after this week in Katowice. Karolina is in the quarterfinals in singles, having defeated Maria-Teresa Torro Flor and fifth-seed Kaia Kanepi en route. She’ll face off against second-seed Roberta Vinci on Friday. Kristyna lost to the No. 3 seed, Klara Zakopalova, in the opening round. The pair, who’ve shown prowess in doubles as well, were knocked out in the doubles quarterfinals on Thursday after defeating top-seeded Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Janette Husarova.

Both twins turned professional in 2009 and it’s taken them until now to each make a name for themselves on the WTA. However, it remains to be seen if one, or both, can take the Pliskova family name to the top.